Culture, the Instructional Designer, and the Elements of Engagement

Instruction necessarily happens in a context, a culture. Culture is one of the pillars of an engaging course.

I made the image below to show what I think of as the four pillars of engagement.

Learner Engagement Model-01

In other words, a learner is more likely to be engaged in a course if it takes place in a culture that values learning. A culture truly values learning, at least in a professional services environment, when learners believe:

  • Class time is just as important as billable time. If an emergency with a client arises, the right thing to do is to step out of the classroom to deal with it rather than distract others.
  • They will be held accountable on the job for learning the material in class (natural consequences).
  • They should set an example for others in the class by actively participating.
  • They have a responsibility to future participants to help improve the course by providing thoughtful feedback.

The learning culture of an organization is set by the leaders. If the leaders deliver the right messages and themselves demonstrate desirable behaviors, a culture respectful of learning is born. If the culture in an organization is not conducive to learning, an instructional designer has to figure out either how to overcome it, or how to change the culture. Not easy!

The other pillars are just as important. If the design or delivery of the course is lacking, engagement wavers. Learners have to perceive that a course had value. And the environment has to be free from more compelling distractions.*

The chain at the top represents a fail safe for weak pillars. As an instructional designer, I want people to engage with a course because it has a great design, a great instructor, relevant content, an appropriate environment, and a group of participants who have come to learn. I don’t want people to engage because “I need to pass a test.” I want participants to engage because they see the value, because the elements of the course come together to make it easy to achieve a state of flow.

In other words, I like building pillars.

*While thinking about this model, I tried hard to come up with a positive adjective that describes the quality of encouraging people to focus on a problem or presentation–something better than “not distracting.” “Quiet” isn’t really what I’m going for; a classroom can be loud but still have everyone totally focused on the task at hand. I’m open to suggestions.


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